7. Better Measuring Sticks via a Digital Portfolio

Getting rid of Grades and College and purposefully Failing our Students
In today’s world, we measure success in school with numbers that we gather from grades, tests, and college acceptance rates. But do these external grading systems really help instill the right kind of insights we want in our students?
Regardless of interest or background or ability, we require every student to go through the same curriculum and tests, even though every student has their own strengths and weaknesses. We filter them through a system that is designed to discover the students that are good at getting a high score in tests. We use this information to determine whether or not students are excelling and with that, guide students along a path where the better students, with higher grades, get to go to better schools and the worst students, the ones with lower grades, go to less prestigious schools.
At the end of the day, what we have are a handful of students who excelled in taking tests based on a curriculum that was defined decade ago. Schools are a filter that find students who are capable of following directions and punish everyone else who is different. What we are very clearly not doing is developing our students, polishing them into the best version of themselves.
That’s why there needs to be a fundamental change to how we determine success in school. And to do that, we must re-consider how grading works.

The Problem with Grades

Not to be dramatic, but grades have destroyed the real goal of education. In China and Japan, there is the National Exam for getting into university. Throughout the entirety of high school, all you’re doing is preparing for this exam. If you do well on the exam, you have the opportunity to go to a good university. If you don’t do well, then you can go to a subpar university or try to re-take the exam next year. High school is now four years spent learning the content for a test to get into university. How many students use the content they memorize for this National Exam after they join society in the real world?
In the US, we have something similar. High school is four years of academic preparation for university. All the classes are designed to help you get comfortable with the way college classes work. The success of high schools is measured by what kind of universities their students are able to enter. If that was the metric, it’s curious why there aren’t any mandatory SAT classes for all the students.
Additionally, standardized testing is heavily used to measure a school’s success. Students are tested and schools use these results to measure the success of the school’s education system.
Does any of this make any sense? The incentives are all wrong! Every student is dumbed down to one number and the incentive for all schools is to increase that number. How does this number help these students step into the real world? Is this the best use of their time? Is this the best way to help them become the best version of themselves and prepare them to enter society has autonomous individuals?
The answer is no.

Why we have grades

Just to break this down a bit more, the reason that we have grades is because there is no way to administratively manage everything. The structure has naturally evolved into one that is elitist thanks to money.
Since the beginning of time, there needed to be a way to filter out the best. The best would have opportunities to attend lectures with the best professors. This slowly became opportunities to attend elite schools and universities. As the number of applicants increased, a system needed to be in place that would allow these elite schools to find the right students in the shortest amount of time. While perviously, there might have been a direct connection between members of the elite schools and the applicants so there’s a general understanding of the individual applicants ability, the new format simplifies the applicant into a number (plus a few other metrics depending on where you are in the world).
And this is all reasonable. With the limited resources and the technology available at the time, this really was the best that could be done. Information was scarce and it was only available at these elite schools. There was no internet and information was not easily accessible. There was no easy way to communicate with experts and there was no easy way to engage in conversation via publications.
Grades really were the best solution to the problem at hand. But now, we are again at a point of evolution.

Getting Rid of Grades

In our school system right now, grades are numbers used to determine whether or not you succeeded in something. There are grades for assignments, grades for quizzes and tests, and grades for entire courses. These numbers are used to judge a student’s proficiency and is used to determine their future path.
It makes sense to have grades for assignments, quizzes, and tests because they are a very isolated event and re-dos are potentially possible (another problem that will be discussed later). But does it really make sense to use grades for entire courses? What’s the point of failing a student if they don’t have options to re-do the work and learn from their mistake?
What is the point of the education system today? The education system is currently a way to filter students and find the best applicants for the elite schools. All the ones who do not fit the criteria that is used to judge students get pushed to the way side and are labeled as failures. Is this really the best we can do?
Now, what do we want the education system to actually be? A systematic way to create the best versions of each individual student and prepare them to integrate into society. To accomplish that, we need something better than grades.
And the answer is actually quite simple. What we need is a digital portfolio.

The Digital Portfolio

The digital portfolio is a record of everything that happened during school. Essentially, it borrows from the measure of achievement that is used in society, the resume. After graduating from school, no one talks about what your grades were. The initial measurement for compatibility for any opportunity is your resume, a list of what you have achieved. Thus, the digital portfolio is a digital resume that follows you through the entirety of school, listing all your accomplishments and tracks all your progress.
The digital portfolio will track everything.
It will track the content in the Core Curriculum. For parts of the curriculum that are very focused around soft skills, it will track all the content that was studied. The content might be in the form of lectures or workshops, in which case, the digital portfolio will note that you had attended the event and if available, list that you took a test to verify that you understand the content. The intention is to track progress in the different soft skills that you’re learning and measuring how much understanding the student has of each soft skill.
It will track the Secondary Curriculum, focusing on how the student performed in different parts of the skill tree and the level of understanding achieved. Even though much of the Secondary Curriculum is hard skill based, the tracking of it will involve a lot more than just numbers from quizzes and tests because the understanding of this content cannot be simply verified with just tests. The real key to understanding comes in the form of actually using the knowledge in new and unique ways where there his potentially no right answer. This might involve projects, real world problems that need research and solving, or business and marketing related thinking to convince others of your thinking. Anything is possible and the more out of the box, the better.
Although we haven’t really brought it up yet, both the Core Curriculum and the Secondary Curriculum will have a heavy amount of project based learning. Project based learning is great for integrating different aspects of the curriculum into one larger, holistic piece of content in the curriculum. The value of using the digital portfolio is that the incentive is not about the grade anymore, but it’s a goal that can be defined by the team and it offers ultimate flexibility, giving the decision making power to the students.
Lastly, it will be important to track the student themself. Their personal history on what they have done, read, watched, listened to, etc. Their growth as they journal and explore their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, their habits, and their successes and failures. These and potentially many more are all key metrics that can be used to better understand how the school can better help the student develop to becoming the best version of himself.

Preparing for integration into society

The importance of having a digital portfolio in schools cannot be overstated. Grades just cannot be what it needs to be to prepare students for the real world.
Grades are relatively short sighted and they cannot be used to really tell a story. The digital portfolio creates a form of flexibility in education that is unheard of and it is the perfect foil to help us affect change to the curriculum.
This is important because the future is coming and it’s coming faster than we expect because the changes are accelerating. We have entered an era where growth is exponential, not linear. That means although many things seem slow right now, a single spark can cause everything to change many tens of times faster immediately.
Thus, an additional benefit to the digital portfolio is its ability to facilitate and support education and projects that heavily tie into the real world. Academics in elementary, middle, and high school are highly disconnected from the real world. Why not bring more of the real world into the classroom?

Conclusion

The goal of the digital portfolio is to create an opportunity to think outside the box of traditional education that is limited by grades. By making the replace of grades be a tracking of a student’s progress, it opens up doors and creates a lot of flexibility to how to measure success.
Our current system rewards only one kind of student. The “good” student. The grading system basically is designed to only discover the one kind of “good” student and forsakes the rest.
With the help of the app for personalized learning and the digital portfolio, we are in a position to really transform education into something that focuses on the development of the student rather than filtering students into buckets that don’t necessarily empower them to discover what they can really succeed at.